Capitol Alert Breaking

Gov. Brown agrees to Mexico pact on climate change; environment activists wary of business ties

Gov. Jerry Brown, calling for “heroic efforts” to combat climate change, agreed with Mexican officials Monday to work together on policies to address air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The agreement, though nonbinding, comes as the Democratic governor moves to expand his diplomatic efforts on the environment. Dozens of reporters ran upstairs at Mexico’s foreign affairs ministry to set up cameras for the signing ceremony, while Brown, a longtime advocate for environmental causes, heralded his state as a burgeoning source of pressure on other governments to address climate change.

“Even though California is a mere subnational entity, it is equivalent to the eighth-largest country in the world,” Brown said at a news conference before the event. “And we intend to operate based on that clout.”

Yet Brown’s ambassadorship on the environment has been complicated in his third term by criticism from environmentalists in California. His trip – organized by the California Chamber of Commerce, which is suing over a provision of the state’s controversial cap-and-trade program – serves as a reminder, too, of Brown’s ties to industry and of his tenuous relationship with more liberal Democrats back home.

In California, Brown has infuriated activists with his willingness to allow hydraulic fracturing, a controversial form of oil extraction, and efforts to relax provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act.

“He talks about the environment, he talks about the need to reduce climate change, and then he is continuing to accept campaign funding from the oil industry and is astoundingly weak on the fracking issue,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. “Yeah, it’s troubling.”

Of the roughly 90 people with business ties joining Brown in Mexico, about one-third have donated to Brown’s political causes in recent years or represent companies that have, with contributions totaling about $750,000 since 2010.

The delegation includes representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, but also Sempra Energy, BP America and others with interests in energy, real estate and agriculture – all with business before the state. The $5,000 participation fee delegates paid to travel with Brown subsidized his expenses and those of his staff.

At an opening reception at the JW Marriott Mexico City on Sunday night, Brown said the event was “the glitziest thing I’ve ever seen” and then caused some guffaws when he added, “This is the way Republicans live.”

Brown met privately Monday with Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto and appeared at a joint news conference with José Antonio Meade Kuribreña, Mexico’s foreign affairs secretary, before signing the climate agreement with a lower-level administration official.

The agreement calls for California and Mexico to “cooperate and coordinate efforts” on climate change, including sharing research and “developing and implementing carbon pricing systems.” The agreement, which is similar to memoranda of understanding Brown has signed with officials in China, Canada and other U.S. states, includes many potential areas of cooperation, but no legal force.

Such agreements are nevertheless considered meaningful diplomatically. Environmental policies enacted in California, with its sizable economy, have served as a model for other states and the federal government for decades, including fuel efficiency standards for automobiles and benchmarks for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Canadian province of Quebec belongs to California’s cap-and-trade market, which requires power plants and other polluters to reduce emissions or buy allowances, and Oregon, Washington and British Columbia have expressed interest.

“You can’t really visit Sacramento as an outside government official without signing a pact of some kind,” said Tom Hayden, the former California state lawmaker who was Brown’s solar energy council chairman in the 1970s. “The paperwork is already ready for your arrival.”

Hayden said Brown has “generated a lot of momentum” on climate change, but he also said he has cautioned the governor’s advisers that opposition on hydraulic fracturing could hinder Brown’s efforts. Protesters have heckled Brown at public events and interrupted his speech at the California Democratic Party’s annual convention earlier this year.

“The fracking issue is a real obstacle to his assuming national or international leadership,” Hayden said. “He can’t brush it away, and you know, the protests won’t stop.”

On the eve of Brown’s trip, Adam Scow of the group Californians Against Fracking issued a prepared statement criticizing Brown.

“Gov. Brown can only honestly call himself a climate leader through prioritizing the expansion of renewable energy and banning fracking,” he said.

Following a chamber luncheon previewing the trip in Sacramento last week, Brown told reporters that climate change is the “overarching, existential threat to humanity” and that he was going to Mexico to “do something about that.”

The country is nowhere near as large a carbon emitter as the United States or China, where Brown traveled last year. But it is politically significant in Latin America and is “big enough so other emerging economy countries can look to it as a model,” said Richard Maullin, a pollster who chaired the California Energy Commission when Brown was governor before and now serves on the board of the Independent System Operator, which operates California’s electric grid.

“Mexico’s an important place for this,” he said.

Brown is hoping agreements made here on the environment can be used to influence international meetings on the environment in Peru in December and in Paris next year, where countries are expected to adopt a new treaty on climate change.

The Paris meeting, Brown said, “is the crucial event for the future of the world. And it’s going to be very challenging to get something done that has real bite and limits the production of carbon, and that’s what has to be done.”

Brown would appear to have a natural ally in Mexico, which in 2012 adopted one of the world’s most aggressive national climate change laws. The country has mandated a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020, and Mexico City residents are acutely aware of the effects of traffic congestion and smog.

Implementation of the law, however, has been uneven, with difficulty raising public support outside the capital and resistance throughout the country from business interests.

“In the planning process I think it was really smooth,” said Carlos Tornel, a public policy analyst at the nongovernmental Mexican Environmental Law Center in Mexico City. “The implementation of this planning process – this has been a lot more difficult.”

He said, “The private sector has been very, very difficult to convince that climate change will affect them.”

In addition to the environment, Brown is also in Mexico to discuss commerce, and Allan Zaremberg, president and CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce, focused on that aspect of the trip when he praised Brown for “taking a leadership role in promoting California’s role in international trade.”

Brown has enjoyed a relatively favorable relationship with the chamber since taking office, which Zaremberg attributed to “a recognition that his success is the success of the business community.”

“He is the leader,” Zaremberg said, “and he’s the one who makes the political decisions.”

On the environment, Zaremberg said the chamber supports cap and trade, only opposing the state raising revenue from carbon allowance auctions. A Sacramento Superior Court judge last year rejected the chamber’s claim that carbon auctions amount to an unconstitutional tax on California’s largest industries, but the chamber has appealed.

Meanwhile, oil industry groups have intensified pressure on Brown to delay expanding the cap-and-trade program to vehicle fuels in 2015, a measure they say will result in higher gas prices.

Hesitations about environmental restrictions’ impact on the economy resonates in Mexico, a country with widespread poverty and security concerns.

In a park near the hotel where Brown is staying, Adriana Velasco, a lawyer, said of Brown’s agenda on the environment, “Mexico has more complicated problems.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee